By Sally Griffin
Do you sometimes hear raucous calls outside your window? When you look out, do you see flashes of white against a black background sweeping past your window? Then you too are being visited by one of the most familiar and entertaining birds in Western North America – The Black-billed Magpie. We see and hear magpies in our area under our kitchen window, mostly competing with the squirrels for the pine nuts and other goodies.
They are a flashy relative of crows and, like crows, often gather in large numbers, especially if there is fresh roadkill or other carrion. Like most corvids (members of the jay or crow family), they are very open-minded about their diet. In other words, they will eat almost anything. They will eat wild fruit, nuts and grains. They often forage on the ground for grasshoppers. They have even been seen flipping cow dung to find hidden beetles. They will kill and eat small rodents. They will raid other birds’ nests. They will help themselves to any human food that appeals to them at the time. But they really, really love carrion and will also eat the fly maggots that are found in the decaying meat. Sometimes, when they find a bunch of food, they will hide it so they can keep all the “good” stuff for themselves. They also have a peculiar habit of landing on cows and picking ticks off their backs. This helps the cow get rid of the ticks, but sometimes, to the irritation of farmers and ranchers, they peck too hard and open sores on the cows that can become infected.
Historical records show that Black-billed Magpies have been associated with people for a long time. The Lewis and Clark expedition reported that magpies would walk right into their tents and steal their food. Magpies frequently followed hunting parties of the Plains Indians and would help themselves to the leftovers after the bison kills. The Blackfoot tribe considers the magpie as a clever bird that has qualities associated with healers, soothsayers and elders of the tribe. Roman mythology identifies magpies with Bacchus, the god of wine, so they were associated with drunkenness. In China, a chattering magpie is a sign of good fortune and happiness and, thus, it is considered sacred in the Manchu area of China. They were developed as the cartoon characters, Heckle and Jeckle and were portrayed as loud, abrasive and somewhat looney.
They are large birds, which makes their calls very loud. Their sounds include whining sounds such as “maag” or “awk-awk” followed by a series of raspy “chuck, chuck” sounds. Like other corvids, they are intelligent birds and are quick learners. Like a parrot, they can mimic the calls of other birds and have been known to imitate human words. One writer talks about how the magpies would call the dogs in his mother’s voice. They are attracted to shiny things so you don’t want to leave your jewelry anywhere that they can get to it. Magpies are, surprisingly, the only non-mammals that can recognize themselves in a mirror. What they think of their image in the mirror is uncertain because nobody seems to have ever interpreted magpie speech.
Magpies have long wedge-shaped tails that are longer than their bodies. They have short rounded wings. They average about 19 inches in length and weigh about half a pound. Most people think that they are just black and white in color, but, in fact, the feathers of the tail and wings are iridescent. Viewed from the top, they have a bronzy-green to purple color. They have white bellies and shoulder patches and their wings flash white when they launch into flight. They are not swift when in flight. So, they avoid predators by flitting in and about tree limbs or heading for heavy cover. They will usually stay close to cover, but sometimes forage in the open with a characteristic strut, followed by quick hop if they need to cover ground quickly.
Magpie is an odd name. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, they are referred to as “Magot Pies,” probably from the black and white birds that were seen flipping cow pies to look for maggots. In Webster’s Dictionary, the name is supposed to come from “Mag” which is short for Margaret. The “pie” may come from the name of their class of birds, which is “pica.” Or some say the term “pie” is derived from the French for black-and-white or “pied.”
Magpies are capable of causing a number of problems, including damage to crops and livestock. Perhaps the most notorious magpie behavior is that of picking open wounds and scabs on the backs of livestock. If they find an open wound, they can keep picking at it until they create a much larger wound. The wound may eventually become infected and, in some instances, may kill the animal. They can be very destructive to poultry, eating eggs or killing hatchlings. Large roosts of magpies can be a nuisance because of loud noises they make and the excessive odor of their droppings.
They are protected as migratory non-game birds, but there are some things you can try if they become a nuisance:
• Remove offending nests
• Remove things that attract them, like, carrion, garbage, bird feeders and pet food.
• Using netting to protect poultry and poultry nests.
• Use a frightening program that may include the use of fireworks, scarecrows and propane cannons. (You may want to check it out with your neighbors, however, before you start exploding fireworks or shooting cannons!)
• Visual scare devices like Mylar tape, balloons and flags may temporarily scare them.
• Remove brush, and tree branches where they like to roost
• There are traps that can be used, but these require proper care of the traps and the use of decoy birds. You should always check local laws before doing any trapping.
• One authority says to “use an umbrella as a protection against aggressive diving attacks.”
• You can move to Nebraska. (Just kidding!) It seems the Nebraska population of magpies is rapidly declining while the Colorado population is increasing. There is speculation that this is caused by the birds contracting West Nile Virus in Nebraska. The higher altitudes of Colorado seem to be less hospitable to the West Nile Virus.